Archive for the ‘Japanese Photography’ tag
Watching the BBC News in the aftermath of the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami on the east coast of Japan, I vividly remember the foreign correspondent reporting from a town with an unusual name: Rikuzentakata. Little did I know then that Rikuzentakata would come to symbolise the unimaginable destruction of the earthquake and tsunami. In months to come, reporters, journalists and photographers would descend on this town and try to capture the sense of loss and grief caused by the disaster. A documentary called Japan’s Tsunami: Caught on Camera harrowingly dissected the video footage produced by the few survivors who were there that day in March 2011. I would begin to associate Rikuzentakata with an image of destruction.
I only realised later that Rikuzentakata is also the hometown of the photographer Naoya Hatakayema. By mere chance, Hatakeyama embarked on a longterm project in 2002, capturing the town’s close spiritual association with the sea. In one image taken before the tsunami, Hatakeyama photographed a tree with gohei, or wooden wands with paper streamers used in Shinto rituals, which were meant to purify the tree from the spirits. On his return to Rikuzentakata, the massive tree withstood the forces of the tsunami while the destruction of the town is clearly visible in the background to the photograph. Hatakeyama’s personal connection to this place thus resulted in an eerie set of images that capture the town before and after the disaster. His photographs ultimately depict the landscape as a complex set of binary opposites: the past and the present, a once safe place now destroyed.
In his book Umimachi, or literally ‘Ocean Town’ or ‘Sea Town’, the photographer Koji Onaka photographed the Sanriku district, which was badly affected by the tsunami, between 1991 and 1993 (Onaka now sells these photographs to raise funds for children orphaned by the disaster). In the first instance, the photographs depict a sense of romance and nostalgia often associated with sea side towns in Japan. Similar to Shohei Imamura’s film Warm Water Under the Red Bridge, Onaka’s photographs depict a place essentially at peace with itself and its natural surroundings. To emphasise this sense of peacefulness, the photographs are also purposefully banal: boys playing baseball, girls waiting for the school bus, a bunch of fishermen cleaning their tools near the harbour. In the context of the 2011 tsunami, the images are haunting reminders that the tsunami flattened a strip of land photographers once recognised as beacon of peace and harmony. Here, the primary role of photography is as a medium of memory, allowing those who look at photographs to remember a place that does not longer exist.
At the time the earthquake struck, the photographer Lieko Shiga participated in an artists’ residency in a town called Kitagama, roughly 50 miles away from Fukushima. As one of Japan’s most promising young photographers, Shiga is best known for her surreal and magical representation of fantastical scenes of the imaginary. Shiga was personally affected by the disaster as the house she was staying at, her studio and a year’s worth of photographic work was destroyed. Rather than succumbing to the loss of her photographic work, Shiga participated in the clean up of the town, specifically employing her knowledge on photography to save other people’s lost photographs and family albums. Her resulting project is a vast archive of personal photographs that were selflessly collected, cleaned, categorized and archived. Shiga’s approach to the disaster resulted in a community-based project that functioned as a way to contemplate the tragic losses of the disaster via found family photographs. In spite of losing her own photographic work, Shiga traversed Kitagama to help others to locate photographs of loved ones. The curator of Japanese art Lisa Sutcliffe comments on this work: ‘This public service may yet yield some new way of seeing the catastrophe, and will serve as a testament to the lives that were lost or changed irreparably.’ By collecting and representing found photographs Shiga comments on the human and the emotional dimension caused by the trauma of losing friends and family. Photography is not employed to represent the disaster, but rather, it represents an opportunity to confront the trauma it effected.
The photographer Rinko Kawauchi also travelled to the effected regions on the east coast of Japan. Her previous photographic works are characterized by astute and subtle observations of the every day. Rather than solely training her camera on the destruction caused by the tsunami, Kawauchi noticed a pair of domesticated pigeons who always returned to the same place in one coastal town. Guided by the navigational instincts, the pigeons habitually returned to the place that they new best yet that no longer existed. In as much the Tōhoku represents destruction on an unimaginable scale, Kawauchi’s photographs also signify a sense of renewal.
One of the most surreal yet also touching photographic works to have been produced in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami is Yasusuke Ota’s project The Abandoned Animals of Fukushima. A day after the tsunami damaged a nuclear reactor at Fukushima, those living within 20km of the power plant were forcibly evacuated by the government. In fear of nuclear contamination, inhabitants had to leave their personal belongings, as well as pets and farm animals behind. Two weeks after the evacuation took place, Ota volunteered to enter the ‘no go’ area to provide these animals with food and water. What Ota found were amazingly surreal scenes that could have featured in post-apocalyptic films such as I am Legend: an ostrich that escaped from a nearby farm roaming the streets of Okuma Machi, a bunch of cows apparently lost and confused on a parking lot in Tomioka Machi, and, perhaps most bizarrely, pigs trying to cool their bodies in a puddle on the streets of Namie Machi. Ota’s photographic project adds another dimension to our perception of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami as the roaming animals create a surreal contrast to a place in which life, it appears in the photographs, has otherwise stood still.
In sum, the works I have discussed above point to a number of different strategies and methodologies Japanese photographers have employed to ‘capture’ the disaster. The role of photography in all these works is crucial: rather than depicting loss or destruction directly, these photographers produced deeply personal works that illuminate one particular aspect of the disaster. Faced with destruction on an unimaginable scale, their photographs help us visually and metaphorically contemplate the sense of trauma and loss, while, at the same time, amidst the rubble pockets of life begin to emerge. The photographs also refer to new opportunities and challenges that many photographers have overcome in order to represent fractured communities that are slowly but steadily rebuilding themselves.
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The exhibition Contemporary Japanese Photobooks is currently on display at the newly re-designed Photographers’ Gallery in London. Curated by the photographer Jason Evans and the co-author of the landmark study Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ‘70s Ivan Vartanian, the exhibition presents a diverse range of photobooks published over the last decade. For those interested in the subject matter, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to view some rare material, some of which would be even difficult to find in the most specialized bookshops in the backstreets of Tokyo.
Perhaps unusual for an exhibition displaying rare and valuable books, the viewer is actively encouraged to physically engage with the books. The books are openly displayed along the side of the walls, while seats and tables in the middle of the single room space invite the viewer to study the material at their own pace. Giving a small indication of how precious some of the books are, visitors are requested to wear white gloves presented at the entrance at the gallery. The exhibition thus underlines the fact that photobooks are not only a bound collection of photographs to be looked at, but rather, the photobook itself is a physical and tactile object that must be appreciated in its own right.
The importance of appreciating the photobook as a physical object is underlined in the exhibition by displaying a very diverse selection of books that were produced with very different and often-experimental methods: the paper edges of one book were covered by a reflective silver varnish while the pages of another book were kept together by industrial sized bolts. There is a sense in this exhibition that in some cases the photobook – as Gesamtkunstwerk – is edging towards the very boundary of the book as a commonly recognizable object.
By focusing on photobooks from Japan however, the exhibition of course also comments on a cultural specificity. While in the West the exhibition might be the preferred method of presenting photographs, in Japan, the photobook is the most common platform for disseminating photography. As pointed out in Vartanian’s illuminating study, the historical origins of the photobook as an emerging cultural industry can be traced back to the 1960s, and perhaps more specifically, to the emergence of a radical new type of photography ideologically aligned with the New Left Movement. Photobooks often allowed photographers to bypass the more traditional publishing outlets under heavy control of government policy. These radical origins of the photobook in Japan are equally visible in the exhibition: pushing the physical limits of the photobook is historically located in the belief that the medium of photography can push against ideological and political restrictions.
There is also an economic reason why the photobook flourishes, more than the photography exhibition, in Japan since emerging photographers are often locked out from the gallery system. This gallery system can be roughly broken down into five parts: public galleries, private galleries, department store galleries, camera manufacturers’ galleries and rental galleries where photographers can exhibit their work in exchange for a fee. For the vast majority of emerging photographers, the latter is the most viable option as the former are usually restricted to more established names. Faced with the increasing cost of exhibiting their work in often-tiny rental galleries, photographers instead invest in their work by publishing it as a book and thus reaching a wider audience.
The elevated value of a publication over an exhibition can also be seen in the way photography awards are structured in Japan. A nomination for the UK’s most prestigious photography award, the Deutsche Börse Prize (also on display at The Photographers’ Gallery at the moment), hinges on an exhibition. In Japan, a nomination for the most prestigious photography award, the Kimura Ihee Prize, follows the publication of a book. In short, as a consequence of specific political, economical and institutional developments, the photobook has flourished into a booming cultural industry in Japan. This exhibition is a timely, however, also selective case in point.
If you are interested in the emergence of ‘provocative’ photography in Japan in the late 1960s, please download my essay below:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
In the early 1970′s, while walking with a friend through a park in Tokyo, photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki noticed that young couples used the park as a space for intimate encounters in the belief that they are protected by the darkness of the night. Equipped with a small camera and Kodak’s infrared flashbulb, Yoshiyuki produced a series of photographs that captures the nightly performance in Tokyo’s parks. In this haunting series of photographs produced between 1971 and 1979 and simply called The Park, the couples, both straight and gay, become the unwitting actors in Yoshiyuki’s play. While The Park has attracted much controversy in 1979 when it was first exhibited and published as a book in Tokyo, it was nearly thirty years later, in 2007, that Yoshiyuki’s project received global acclaim resulting in exhibitions throughout the US and Europe.
Photographing the couples kissing, fondling and maybe doing more, Yoshiyuki, as it appears in the photographs, was not alone in observing the nocturnal encounters. So rather than only depicting the couples themselves, Yoshiyuki would literally take a step back and incorporate the bizarre dynamic between voyeurs and the subject of their gaze in his photographs. The voyeuristic act is completed by the viewer of the photograph observing the subject of the photograph. Yoshiyuki thus sets out a complex dynamic of looking and being-looked-at which can be deduced into this formula: a couple kisses in the park, the couple is watched by voyeurs, the photographer photographs the couples being watched by voyeurs, and finally, the viewer looks at a photograph depicting voyeurs looking at a couple kissing in the park. In other words, not only the photographer but also the viewer of the photograph become incidental voyeurs in the act of looking.
There are a number of historical and cultural explanations for Yoshiyuki’s set of photographs. Most images for The Park were taken in Tokyo’s Chuo Koen, or central park, adjacent to the bustling Shinjuku district. Throughout the late 1960s, Shinjuku was both, the hotbed for political activism and the New Left movement, and also, the emerging center for the sexual liberation in Japan. Shinjuku thus became, quite naturally, also a major center for photographers keen to capture the Zeitgeist of their generation. Shōmei Tōmatsu (b. 1930), Daidō Moriyama (b. 1938), even the illustrious Nobuyoshi Araki (b. 1940) all produced photographic work, often with hidden or overt sexual references, in around Shinjuku.
Apart from any political and ideological affinities Kohei Yoshiyuki (b. 1946) might have had with his contemporaries, there is also a geographical reason why young couples would be inclined to make out in the park and subsequently attract voyeurs and photographers alike. Shinjuku is a major transportation hub with several overland and underground train lines converging at Shinjuku station. For those couples that don’t live together and especially for those who are separated by a long commute, Shinjuku represents a logical common ground in which intimacies might be exchanged. Even today, despite the cultural taboo of kissing openly in public, young couples can be frequently seen making out at Shinjuku station. It is precisely this cultural predicament, that making out in public is frowned upon, combined by the logistics of living in a megapolis in which couples are separated by extreme distances, that brings the lovers to Tokyo’s parks. Yoshiyuki’s photographic also precedes the widespread popularity of the ‘Love Hotels’, or establishments charging for a short ‘stay’, which became increasingly popular in the 1980s seeking to cover an obvious gap in the market.
In addition to the geographical specificities of dense urban living, Yoshiyuki’s The Park also evokes comparisons with cinematic trends in Japan at the time. Released in 1966, Shōhei Imamura’s iconoclastic film The Pornographers similarly deals with voyeurism and sexuality in Japanese culture. As film within a film, The Pornographers also seeks to reveal the very power (and limitations) of the cinematic apparatus itself. Like Yoshiyuki sneaking up to the voyeurs in Tokyo’s central park, Imamura depicts his subjects ostensibly in moments of looking. The central focus on the gaze in The Pornographers results in an extremely experimental and provocative form of visual communication. In one scene, the camera focuses on the main protagonist as he is watching a woman getting changed in her bedroom. In order to emulate the protagonist’s gaze sideways through the gap of a sliding door, the camera too is flipped on its side by 90 degrees. Like in Yoshiyuki’s nocturnal visits to the park, the viewer of the film becomes an unwitting accomplice while looking through the allegorical keyhole of the camera’s lens.
Because of its inventive camera techniques and angles, Shōhei Imamura’s The Pornographers would arguably also have an impact on American cinema. The classic scene in The Graduate (1967) in which Dustin Hoffman is depicted looking at Mrs. Robinson’s legs appears to be a close approximation of a similar scene in The Pornographers (1966). Yoshiyuki’s The Park too had a distinct effect on visual culture: in 2008, just a year after it was ‘re-discovered’, fashion photographer Steven Meisel’s series ‘Dogging’ unapologetically copies from Yoshiyuki’s acclaimed photographs.
The appropriation and re-appropriation of images that deal with the desire of (secretly) looking is perhaps less an indication of the social conditions in which they were produced in than it is an indication for how easily and universally such looking can have sexual connotations. Those who knowingly look at those who are unknowingly being looked at also exert a form of dominance over their subject. In this complex power dynamic, the photograph (or the film) acts as an active conduit which lays bare the deep desires and fears of controlling and being controlled. Located in the middle of Tokyo yet surrounded by nature, photographed in complete darkness yet fully visible, as the voyeurs in Yoshiyuki’s photographs sneak up to, watch, and sometimes even grab towards those couples they are looking at, The Park represents the topographical equivalent of a split personality disorder in which these desires and fears appear to be magnified through the lens of the camera.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.